English profiles


October 2022

When I approached Turkish pianist Idil Biret whether I could interview her during her stay in my home city Utrecht in October 2022, where she was to be a member of the jury of the Liszt Competition, her husband Sefik B.Yüksel informed me that she was unfortunately ill and therefore couldn't attend. He kindly offered me to send my questions by e-mail. A few weeks later, Idil Biret sent me her detailed answers, which resulted in an interesting interview. I’d like to thank both of them for their help and generosity!

Willem Boone (WB): You made your debut at the age of 11 in Mozart’s Double Concerto with Wilhelm Kempff. How did you experience that event?

Idil Biret (IB): Prof. Kempff told my family around 1951 that he would one day give a concert with me. Then after some time he said we should now play together and the concert was organized for February 1953 in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysées. His daughter and my friend Irene said many years later that Prof. Kempff had never before or after that concert played with a child. 

WB: Were you aware of being a child prodigy or was it something natural for you to play before an audience?

IB: Not really. It was very natural for me to play before an audience. At the time some people said that I played the piano with the same ease as I breathed. As a child I was not aware of being a prodigy. My parents were very careful and my mother kept saying to me “ every child is gifted in a special field. The important thing is to discover the child’s gift”. 

WB: What was it like to play with a famous artist like Kempff?

IB: I did not realise what it meant to play a concerto for two pianos with a great artist like Wilhelm Kempff in front of 2700 people. I was too young. However, I knew this was a very important test and I had to do my best. I was well prepared and had memorized both piano parts. Prof. Kempff trusted me and I knew I should not disappoint him. During the rehearsals I realized that the best way was to listen to what the master was doing and try to imitate him to avoid any accidents. Thus, I had to be in the shadow of Prof. Kempff, so I could hear his delicate nuances, his articulation. I had practiced without using the pedal which was very useful as I was now trying to imitate the magic sound of Prof. Kempff which he produced with his superb legato, without using the left pedal. He did not like the muffled sound this pedal produced. Mozart’s music was clear and singing by itself without the artificial help of the pedal; a well controlled legato with clarity of articulation was the key to this luminous sound.  

WB: Kempff said about you that you were “his favorite student” and “this genius on the piano is among the most exceptional artists of our time”, was he one of your teachers too?

IB: He did not want to work with me until I finished the Paris Conservatoire. I went to his home in Ammerland near Munich in 1958 for the first time and studied with him privately for a week. These visits continued periodically for many years. I also attended the Beethoven masterclasses in Positano in1958 and 1966.   

WB:  For a lot of artists, the transition from their first years (child prodigy) to a grown up artist is a difficult one that often doesn’t go without problems, how difficult or easy was this in your case?

IB: This is probably due to the teaching they receive. The theoretic side of music is somehow neglected by fear that the child may lose his spontaneity by becoming self conscious. I did not have this problem thanks to the training I received at the Paris Conservatory.

WB:  In your biography on Wikipedia I read you studied with Alfred Cortot, how long did you work with him?

IB: For two years. I had monthly private lessons with him between 1958-1960. He came to Paris from Geneva every month.

WB: What did he teach you?

IB: Alfred Cortot was a profound musician, an incredibly cultured man. When playing, the beauty of the sound was unique. He was very honest while teaching. In fact his priorities were similar to those of Wilhelm Kempff and Nadia Boulanger. The technique had to be impeccable.  He would not forgive any sort of weakness in a work I played, like missing a scale or a series of awkward octaves in both hands such as those in the Chopin Fantaisie in the episode preceding the superb middle part leading to the coda. The right hand going upwards and the left hand going downwards; Monsieur Cortot advised me to concentrate on the ornate arpeggio figure of the right hand and told me that this way the left hand would follow automatically so that the danger of a mistake in the left hand could be avoided. This sort of advice was very wise and sound.   Once when I was playing Bach’s Partitas he suggested that I learn how to do these dances. (note: Pls see section on Cortot in IB book for further details)

WB: Your website lists your complete repertoire, it’s incredibly broad, probably one of the broadest I have ever seen, how did you manage to learn so many different compositions, are you a quick learner?

IB: Yes, I am a quick learner. I try to see in which context certain harmonics are used, which helps to understand the character of a work

WB: You play the complete piano solo works by Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninov and the 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven, how important is it for you to be a completist?

IB: Not really important. Chopin and then Brahms and Rachmaninov were proposed by Mr. Klaus Heymann and as I knew and had played most of them I accepted. Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas I had played in seven concerts so later I went ahead and recorded them all. I also recorded all the piano concertos of these composers and many others (in total about seventy piano concertos). 

WB: What was the most recent addition to your repertoire?

IB: Works of two Turkish composers: Ilhan Usmanbas - 6 Preludes and Muammer Sun – Country Colours Bk II Three pieces I recorded in March 2021 just before I fell ill.

WB: Do you still learn new pieces, like Shura Cherkassky did when he was past 80 and studied Ives’s Three Page Sonata?

IB: Yes, I did when necessary. I was about to play and record four Haydn sonatas three of which I had never played before I fell ill in April 2021 a few days before the concert.  

Incidentally I liked and admired Cherkassy very much and also his endless curiosity and the way he built his recital programs. There is no age limit for learning.

WB:  Are these all pieces you currently play or are there compositions you would have to study again when you are asked to play them?

IB: I do not fully understand this question. Of course you have to go over a work again that you are asked to play after a long interval. But, this also depends on the work and my familiarity with it. A few years ago I was to record Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. My husband Sefik found the score of Glazunov’s 2nd Sonata score next to that of Mussorgsky and asked me if I could also record it; The score was given to me by the daughter of Glazunov in Paris where I played it in a recital in the early 1960s. I remembered the work very well and so said yes to Sefik and recorded it the day after Mussorgsky. Now I am practicing again Godowsky’s paraphrases of Viennese waltzes; years ago in the 1970s I played Künstlerleben in my recitals. (note: She played Künstlerleben at the UN Assembly Hall in New York on 10 December 1975. The recording of this recital can be found on the internet . SBY)

WB: You play piano works by Kempff, how do you rate him as a composer? 

IB: On certain points I discover a relationship between Kempff’s composing style and that of Busoni.  I especially like the highly original work where a choir of young boys is used together with piano and orchestra. The Italian Suite for solo piano is also an inspired work. The transcriptions of Bach Chorales and Haendel’s Menuet I greatly admire and I have played them in many of my recitals especially as encores.

WB: You have been a member of the jury of the Liszt Competition in Utrecht before, how important is this composer for you?

IB: Very important. Some of Liszt’s works are very close to me and I have played them often all through my life on the stage. The two Concertos, the Sonata, Venezia et Napoli, the Two Legends of St. Francis, the Schubert song transcriptions were among them and much else. 

WB: What are characteristics a good Liszt player should have in your opinion? 

IB: A good Liszt player should not be afraid of the jumps which are numerous in his piano writing. Should have a good sense of polyphony and possess a great pianistic control of the keyboard. Have an impeccable rhythmic sense and be careful to avoid excessive speed especially in the scales and virtuoso passages. The use of the pedal should be perfectly controlled; it is wise to use the pedal sparingly. A good legato is a must. Harmonic analysis is important too, as well as voicing. You need to know what the important lines are and which voices you want to bring out in the base and middle register. I remember Nadia Boulanger’s enthusiasm when she came back from a competition where she had heard a wonderful rendition of the Sonata where the pedaling was used very sparingly. She appreciated the fact that all the modulations were so well prepared. There was not any pathos in this highly musical performance of the work.  

WB: It is often said that Liszt’s music is ‘acquired taste’, what do you think of this assessment?

Idil did not answer this question as she had never heard this being said (SBY).

WB: What’s Liszt’s most important quality according to you?

IB: The imagination and a true modesty when transcribing the orchestral works with the aim to be as faithful to the orchestral score as possible. The great musician he was, is perceptible in the choice of the harmonies in his original works. Liszt has been an inspirer to many composers. Neither in his lifetime nor later was he understood.

WB: You play Liszt’s transcriptions of all the Beethoven symphonies, what’s their interest in a time where you can hear the original versions everywhere?

IB: There is more to these transcriptions then introducing them to a large audience that could not listen to the original version of a Beethoven symphony at a concert in mid 19th Century. Many others transcribed these symphonies but only the Liszt ones are performed now which indicates their excellence as transcriptions and also works for the piano in their own right. Horowitz once said that his great regret was that he had not performed the Liszt transcription of the Beethoven symphonies. It is a sheer pleasure to play these transcriptions on the piano as Horowitz realized later in his life. They are also an important introduction to correctly conceiving Beethoven’ s piano sonatas, especially the late ones – a solid classical harmonic knowledge. 

WB: How difficult is it to play an orchestral score like a Beethoven symphony or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on a piano? 

IB: They vary in difficulty. Perhaps most difficult is the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony. In my opinion it is the beauty of the music that is important and one should not try to imitate the orchestral sound on the piano. Clarity of text is the main thing in performing these works. 

WB: Vladimir Horowitz called the Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies ‘the greatest piano works ever written’, do you agree with him?

IB: I knew that he said he regretted not having played them but I did not know that he had also said they were the greatest piano works ever written. Taken out of the context of possibly a longer statement, it is difficult to comment on this. There is no doubt that they are great piano works, 

WB: What would you consider Liszt’s best work(s)?

IB: The symphonic poems Les Préludes, From the Cradle to the Grave which are the banners of romanticism and also the Faust Symphony.

WB: During the edition of the Liszt competition that starts this week, the competitors are asked to play works by Schubert as well as works for violin and piano, what do you think of this idea? Does it allow you to give a more complete idea of what a musician is capable of?

IB: Yes and I would have suggested also the Liszt transcription of Harold en Italie for viola and piano. I have not seen the program but Die Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin of Schubert would also have been appropriate

WB: In an earlier interview from September 2019 with Rudy Tambuyser in ‘Pianist’, you said that musicians play faultlessly nowadays, but “refinement is not about perfectionism”, what do you mean by this, can’t you be both at the same time?

IB: Most of these pianists that I referred to believe that to be perfect means to play fast and without hitting wrong notes respecting the nuances and accents more like a well designed robot. Certainly, refined and technically perfect playing is possible together. A good example is Rachmaninov’s playing. 

WB: In the same interview, you said that “it’s often about either playing very softly or very loudly, without anything worthwhile in between”. You mentioned pianists like Backhaus and Rachmaninov, who had ‘simplicity, style, beauty, a left hand’, how come we lost this, whereas the technical level and mastery of young pianists seem to have no limits?

IB: The limitless technical level and mastery of young pianists is the level of teaching of a high class conservatoire. Very often these new generations of pianists are only interested in playing the notes correctly without understanding the main musical problems of the work they are playing offer. The importance of the left hand I referred to is the base line. By following the base line it can be guaranteed that it will hold all the other lines together.  Nadia Boulanger, at the classe d’accompagnment au piano was asking the pupils to play separately all the voices which made the work, with special attention to the line of the base. Kempff’s left hand was also superb, it had a singing sound. He was following, the great musician he was, all the voices separately. Kempff also had a consummate way of using the pedal which was the most important part of the piano and use it with great care so that the harmonies were never blurred (unless asked by the composer). The foot had to have rythmical independence. It could be syncopated or kept for some base like in Beethoven. He was often doing a sort of tremolo on the pedal when he was not sure of the acoustical conditions. I have learnt all the pedaling secrets thanks to Kempff.   

WB: You said in an interview with Joanne Talbot for Hi-fi News & Record Review UK (July 1988),when asked about your relatively small hands and how you could master works like Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto: “There are no limitations to repertoire, because if you want to do something, you do it. There are always more possibilities than you think. It’s just a question of imagination.” How did that concretely work with this Piano Concerto for instance? What are the possibilities if the composer had twice the size of your hands?

Idil did not answer this question. But, I know that she does what seems impossible. For example she plays the octaves of the opening of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Concerto as they are written. I have seen her do it with her hands as they are. How she manages this may remain a mystery. (SBY) 

WB: You are from Turkey, is it a country with an important tradition when it comes to piano? I remember the twin sisters Guher and Suher Pekinel and Fazil Say, are there other famous Turkish pianists?

IB: The pianist you mention are more recent and rather well known due to their substantial media presence. In my generation there is Aysegül Sarica and Verda Erman who both studied at the Paris Conservatoire Verda was one of the four finalists in the Leventritt competition (1971) where no first prize was awarded. Setrak, who had been a student of Yvonne Lefebure at the Paris Conservatoire was of Armenian origin. He was a natural Liszt player, a brilliant virtuoso who had the heroic romantic temperament with an impressive sound that he expressed in works of Liszt with brio. Whenever we met at his home in Paris we sightread Liszt’s poems in the two piano versions and in the piano concertos one of us playing the piano part. Later came Hüseyin Sermet, Özgür Aydin and most recently Can Cakmur. I could name many other younger ones like Gökhan Aybulus, Can Okan (also an excellent conductor). Gülsin Onay who studied in Paris with Nada Boulanger and  who is well known.). There were also quite a number of so called amateur pianists who had other professions but played the piano excellently. One of them was Dr. Herman Miskciyan who was a pediatrist as well as a horticulturist (he cloned and grew orchids). I performed the concerto for two pianos of Poulenc with the orchestra conducted by Herman’s piano teacher Cemal Resid Rey in Istanbul (1978). He also gave concerts in the Soviet Union playing Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. More importantly, there was an almost forgotten pianist who stopped performing around 1980 due to an eye problem. She is Tomris Özis who was a student of the the German pianist Rosl Schmid at the Munich Conservatory. Schmid was a finalist in the legendary 1938 Ysaye Competition (Now called Queen Elisabeth) in Brussels where Emil Gilels won first prize. Other finalists included Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Jakov Flier, Moura Lympany. In 2017 with Idil’s encouragement IBA issued a box set with live concert recordings of Tomris Özis which included piano concertos of Mozart (No. 23), Beethoven (No. 5), Liszt (No. 1) , Brahms (No. 1), Prokofiev (No. 1) and also the Burlesque of Strauss (Her teacher Rosl Schmid had recorded Burlesque with Joseph Keilberth and the Bamberg Symphony in 1958)as well as many solo pieces.  

WB. How important is classical music in Turkey? 

ÏB: During our stay in Positano in 1982, Wilhelm Kempff told us one evening after dinner about his all night discussion with President Atatürk at his residence in Ankara in 1927. My husband Sefik wrote down what he said which is below at the end of this note. As you will see there, for Atatürk reform in music in Turkey was a necessity and very important as part of the modernization efforts in the country. Classical music had a specially important place therein. The priorities, needless to say, are no longer the same in the Turkey of today.

WB: Who are the most important classical composers in Turkey?

IB: From the first generation we had Cemal Resid Rey, Adnan Saygun, Ulvi Cemal Erkin whose piano concertos I have played in concerts and recorded and there is the music of Necil Kazim Akses.  I also recorded the solo piano works of Erkin, Saygun, Ilhan Usmanbas, Muammer Sun, Ilhan Mimaroglu (electronic music), Ertugrul Oguz Firat (who had also studied law and was a judge). Then my contemporary Ates Pars whose piano concerto and sonata for viola and piano I recorded (with Rusen Günes at the viola) and Cetin Isiközlü whose piano concerto and ballade for piano I played and recorded. There are many younger ones I cannot remember off hand. (note: all these recordings are in the box set Best of Turkish Piano Music IBA 8.504058 cover enclosed SBY)

Prof. Wilhelm Kempff in Turkey

It was in June 1982 during a one week stay of Idil Biret in Italy with Prof. Kempff in his Villa overlooking the Mediterranean from the Positano village heights that the subject of Prof. Kempff's visits to Turkey came up. He was particularly happy that day. He had played a  Schubert sonata in the late afternoon and Idil had joined him for a photograph taken near his piano. Later in the evening, after dinner, the question of his first visit to Turkey was posed. Was it in the 1930s? "No, much earlier" was his reply. "I first visited Turkey in 1927", said Kempff and then continued, "I gave a recital in Ankara at the Halkevi (a hall for public concerts, theatre shows etc.). Kemal Pasha (that was the way he referred to Ataturk)then invited me for dinner with his friends at the Presidential residence (note: in Cankaya, a hilltop in Ankara). There was a large gathering of people in the evening and the dinner lasted until about 11.00 pm. When the guests were leaving he asked me to stay and when everyone was gone we passed into his study. There Kemal Pasha started the conversation  by saying that as part of a drive for modernisation in Turkey he was introducing many reforms in law, education and other areas affecting the public life. He continued to say that classical music was an integral part of the western culture which was the source of his reform movement. He therefore felt the necessity of the widespread  introduction of classical music in Turkey  as part of the drive towards modernisation in the country. Kemal Pasha said that he was afraid that without parallel reforms in music in Turkey his reforms in other areas would remain incomplete.Kemal Pasha then asked  my thoughts on how this could be achieved, the schools, institutions to be formed for this purpose and the eminent musicians and musicologists I may recommend for invitation to Turkey to help build the foundations of classical music. I expressed my ideas, advised him to consult also with Wilhelm Fürtwangler on this subject and perhaps invite him to come to Turkey to assist with a plan of organisation to introduce classical music systematically in Turkey. Our discussions continued until 4.00 am in the morning at which time I took my leave." Prof. Kempff then looked towards the sea and after a moment of silence said, "Kemal Pasha was a great man".   

Turkish government subsequently extended an invitation to Fürtwangler to come to Turkey to provide the necessary advice to establish the institutions for education in classical music. Because of his engagements he was unable to do so, but recommended that Paul Hindemith be invited for this purpose. Hindemith then came and prepared a report and a plan of action for the establishment of the Ankara Conservatoire and other institutions for public music education. The great statesman Atatürk’s vision set the path in music as well as much else in the Turkey in the 1920s and 30s.  

Prof. Kempff visited Turkey many more times from 1927 to 1963. He was much loved by the public, had many close friends there and  he knew personally Mr. Ismet Inonu who became president after Ataturk in 1938. In November 1963, when Inonu was this time prime minister, he  took his whole  cabinet to a concert Kempff was giving in Ankara. During the same trip Prof. Kempff was scheduled to perform in Istanbul on 23 November. When he heard about the tragic death of President Kennedy on November 22nd he became very sad and then said to Mr. Mükerrem Berk, the manager of the Orchestra, "Idil was scheduled to play today with the Boston Symphony Orchestra her US debut concert. What will happen now?" * The Istanbul concert on 23 November was given as a memorial to Kennedy and before the concert started Kempff came on the  stage alone and played the 3rd movement "Marcia Funebre" from Beethoven's Sonata op.26  in memory of the late President. The public was asked not to applaud. He then played  Bach's Concerto in F Minor and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the Orchestra. This was  Prof. Kempff's last visit to Turkey.


* The death of President Kennedy was announced during the intermission of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert in the afternoon of 22 November 1963. After an initial proposal to cancel the second half, it was  decided to continue with the concert in memory of Kennedy and Idil Biret played Rachmaninov's 3rd piano concerto. The radio broadcast recording of this performance was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2019 as a sound recordings deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress

Prepared by Sefik B. Yüksel for Bayerische Rundfunk TV – 1995

Presented by Idil Biret on the Bayerische Rundfunk TV program on the life of Wilhelm Kempff televised on his 100th anniversary of birth on 25.11.1995. The filming of the part with Idil Biret was realised at the Kempff family residence in Ammerland near Munich.


Program of Kempff’s recital in Istanbul on 7 February 1927 (at the German Embassy)*

Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 (Moonlight) / Variations on the Turkish March  / Sonata Op. 53 (Waldstein)

Note: Most probably the concert in Ankara had the same program

*In 1927 the German Embassy had not yet moved to Ankara.